Anyone who’s spoken to me over the last couple of years will likely know the answer I’m going to give to this question. There aren’t many things I would consider to be innate talents. And yes, you’re right, agility isn’t one of them.
But I’m not just arguing that agility is something you can get better at with practice – getting stronger or quicker, or learning footwork patterns. I see agility as a learnable complex motor skill – one every bit as finely-honed as throwing a disc.
If we define agility as the ability to control our body position, to change direction quickly, to be balanced in everything we do, we’re probably not far from how most of us perceive it. A quick online search produces, “Agility is the ability to move and change direction and position of the body quickly and effectively while under control.”
What does it take to do that? If you want to decelerate and then accelerate quickly, what do you need?
First off, basic strength (or more precisely, power/weight ratio). If your legs are strong, then you can impart a lot of force into the ground and quickly change your velocity. While not an innate talent, it’s not really a skill either. Go to the gym and get strong, you’ll be more agile.
Then there’s the basics of technique – knowing how to turn around properly, not sitting on your heels, all that stuff.
But there’s also a large element of motor skill as well. If I wish to turn around on my left foot, then there’s a perfect place to put that foot – a point which will enable me to apply all the force I need in my chosen direction – and a bunch of other places that aren’t as good.
I could put it too far ahead of myself and waste time; I could put it too near myself so that I don’t have enough strength or grip to actually execute the deceleration I had planned. I could put it a bit right or left of the correct spot and waste a ton of energy trying to hold my body straight.
Putting my foot in the wrong place might make it impossible to perform the movement I need; more likely, though, it will just force me to commit some resources that I would have preferred to have available to react to whatever the cutter does next. Maybe I have to throw my arms out to balance myself; maybe I have to twist my hips to take the strain off my knees or ankles – the point is that my poor foot placement will compromise my body position somewhere else.
Agility is being able to neither over- or under-commit, to maintain perfect balance and be in a position to react to the next thing that comes along. And that’s what you lose when you can’t control your feet.
For any movement at all – stopping, starting, veering, jumping – there is a correct place to put my foot which will allow me to impart the right amount of force to my centre of mass with the least effort. The more accurately I can control the many muscles involved in putting my foot right there, the better I can control my movement. Agility is a complex, fine-control motor skill.
And here’s what I’m really trying to say today: when you’re on an agility ladder (or doing some similar agility drills), try to understand what it is you’re learning. You’re NOT learning how to put one foot in a box and then two outside it – you’re learning to put your feet where you want to put them. Don’t think that you’ve done enough when you can do the whole ladder without forgetting the pattern. Your job is only done when you can perform the pattern accurately, with every foot-strike in perfect rhythm, with each hitting exactly where you planned, with no loss of balance. Once you’ve got all that, speed it up (or slow it down – holding balance on each step) to challenge yourself – but doing it right is far more important than doing it quickly.
This drill on the right is a good example. (Taken from here – a nice place to start if you’ve never done ladders.) It’s a fairly simple-looking five-step pattern (it’s certainly not as simple as it looks), but what is really difficult is that it doesn’t allow you to overcommit.
Compare it to the 3-step drill above. In that one, your body goes all the way across the ladder and back, and you can use your steps outside the ladder (where there’s less obvious need to be accurate) to push you back the other way. Even if you’re going too far left, it’s relatively easy to push yourself back to the right by throwing the outside foot wider. If you’re going too fast forwards, you can similarly use an outside-the-ladder foot to regain control.
On the 5-step drill, you have to stop in the middle for four steps before carrying on in the same direction. Your body moves right-left-stop-forward-stop-left-right-stop-forward. When you need to stop in the middle, you haven’t the option of throwing your foot further out – you must keep it in the box. So if you’ve overcommitted, you’ll fail. That means you have to get the previous step exactly right. Every time. That’s an intensity of repeated practice you’re not going to get on the field.
Most people stop focussing on ladder drills when they’ve learned the pattern – but learning the pattern is the easy bit (even when it’s hard). Learning to control your feet, and therefore your balance, is what you’re really after.
Mastering this isn’t a waste of your time – it’s absolutely the kind of practice you need in order to control your motion on the pitch.